Manitoba saw nearly as many congenital syphilis cases last year as all of Canada in 2020

A growing number of Manitoba babies are being born with a disabling, potentially life-threatening disease that was virtually unheard of in the province only a few years ago. 

In 2021, Manitoba recorded 47 cases of congenital syphilis — a disease that can result in a range of health issues, including birth defects, meningitis and intellectual disability.

Manitoba’s 2021 number is almost as many infections as the 50 reported in the entire country in 2020, according to federal data Ottawa says is preliminary. 

“This issue is showing no signs of slowing down,” NDP mental health and addictions critic Bernadette Smith said in question period at the Manitoba Legislature Wednesday, after presenting the latest figures, which her party obtained through a freedom of information request.

“Congenital syphilis is entirely preventable with proper prenatal care.”

The increasing number of newborns with the disease is a new phenomenon in Manitoba. 

In a 2018 interview, a health official said they couldn’t remember a case in Winnipeg going back 50 years. 

537% increase in adult syphilis

Congenital syphilis is transmitted to a newborn by a mother who already has syphilis. The disease can be treated and cured, but only with antibiotics.

In recent years, many cases in Manitoba have involved mothers using methamphetamine or other illicit drugs, health officials have previously said.

The 47 cases recorded last year are a jump from 36 in 2020, which was a new record in Manitoba.

As of October 2020, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority alone — which encompasses only the city of Winnipeg and Churchill areas — had recorded 17  cases of congenital syphilis that year, compared to at least nine in 2019 and five the year before that. 

Manitoba has also been coping with a spike in adult syphilis cases over the years. 

The province reported a 537 per cent increase in cases from 2016 to 2020, the Public Health Agency of Canada said.

NDP MLA Bernadette Smith said prenatal care can help catch syphilis before it is spread to newborns. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Smith called on the province to improve prenatal care, in order to prevent babies from getting infected. 

“One concrete step that needs to be taken is they need to hire more public health nurses,” she said.

In response, Health Minister Audrey Gordon said in question period that the government is focused on hiring more nurses.

Mental Health Minister Sarah Guillemard said the government has spent $58.1 million to address preventive factors affecting mental health and addictions, such as prenatal programs to help identify the people who are at risk. 

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